The German prisoner of war camps, containing millions of Soviet prisoners, were a potential source of manpower. Faced with bad treatment and starvation and a distinct possibility of dying, an increasing number of Russian prisoners volunteered to work for the Germans in exchange for better food and conditions. [2]

The volunteers were called hiwis, a contraction of the German term for volunteer helper. They were widely used in the Replacement Army and railroad construction units for service duties to free men for the front. On February 6, 1943, the Luftwaffe had 100,000 hiwis in construction and antiaircraft units, replacing Germans.

Hiwis became part of the official table of organization of army units. The infantry division was assigned more than a thousand to perform supply duties, care for horses, and other noncombatant roles. In early 1943 the army replaced Germans with 200,000 hiwis and later an additional 500,000. Other ethnic groups were also used as hiwis. On March 18, 1943, the 715th Division in France used 800 black French prisoners, who volunteered to fill 800 vacancies as wagon drivers, grooms, laborers, and other noncombat positions.

In January 1943 the 9th German Army of Army Group Center included 39,400 Russians, either volunteers or conscripted. The infantry divisions in the 9th Army had a total of 7,700 hiwis assigned plus an additional group of 6,000 attached laborers. When the 9th Army evacuated the Rzhev salient, 21,800 more Russians were seized to prevent their working for the Red Army when it reoccupied the territory, and on March 20, 1943, many were assigned to construction battalions to work on fortifications and roads. The Russians made up one-quarter of the manpower for the 9th German Army. On the Eastern Front in 1943 nearly a million Russians were working or fighting for the German Army. Another 900,000 were employed in Germany to work in factories and on the farms.

The Soviet prisoners were also formed into Ost battalions, equipped with captured Russian weapons, and used to fight the partisans. In early 1943 the Germans had 176 Ost battalions; many formed by anti-Communist ethnic minorities from the Caucus, In May 1943 there were 32 Turkestan battalions, 12 Georgian battalions, 11 Armenian battalions, 8 North Caucasus battalions, 16 Muslim and Azerbaijan battalions, and 10 Volga Tartar battalions. By June 1943 there were 320,000 Ost troops.

Ost battalions also replaced Germans in the occupation divisions in France. On January 27, 1943, the German High Command ordered the German divisions in France to send one of their infantry battalions to Russia and in exchange received an Ost battalion. The Ost battalion had German uniforms, but Russian weapons. The first ten battalions were quickly followed at a rate of three battalions in exchange for a single German battalion.

[1] Hilfswillige: Auxiliary Volunteers. After the invasion of the USSR, many thousands of Soviet citizens volunteered to fight the Soviet regime. At first, the German government refused to use them, but later relented (no doubt in the face of mounting casualties) and allowed the German Army to use them in non-combat roles. Hilfswillige served as auxiliaries to the front line troops on various support tasks such as construction or carrying ammo.

[2] Already post June 1941 the army had these Hiwis in their KStN (Unit organizations). The KStN says how many Hiwis are authorized for the unit. Which position they have can be determined by the commander, but they must be in the Tross section.

In this KStN it is the last point of the additional information at the end of the document.

Also note that the “authorized” numbers of Hiwi’s reported by units to be an accurate figure of the numbers that were employed. This is especially true during the early years of the war when “official” Hiwi policies were still unwritten. A lot of the field “improvisations” to solve manpower problems were either unreported or downplayed.

This is also true in the case of Hiwi’s joining combat formations – unfortunately there are no definitive records of when these laborers became soldiers.

After September 1943 thousands of Italian soldiers in Balkans and elsewhere were incorporated as Hiwis in Wehrmacht as an alternative to deportation in Germany.


Airey Neave in the fake German uniform he used to escape Colditz.

Colditz the TV Series

On 24 May 1940, Lt Airey Neave and his men found themselves fighting a rearguard battle against overwhelming German Forces of the 10th Panzer Division, in the town of Calais. Neave was part of the 30th Infantry Brigade, whose job was to try and slow down the German advance on Dunkirk, so that the British and allied soldiers trapped there could be got away. Running from house to house as the German tanks pounded the buildings, Airey Neave realised that this was a hopeless cause, but continued to try and delay the German advance. As he ran across the road, tracer bullets from one of the German tanks followed him, and one struck his thigh sending him crashing to the ground.

Dragging himself into the relative shelter of a nearby house, he was picked up by other British soldiers who took him to a small French hospital for treatment. All that day and the following night, he and many other wounded men lay in the cellar of the hospital listening to the almost continuous bombardment of the town. Then, as he heard that the Germans were closing in around the town, despite his painful wound, Airey Neave decided that he was going to make a break for it and regardless of protestations from the hospital staff tried to make his way out of the hospital. It was then, and only then, that he realised how seriously wounded he was and that there was no way for him to escape without help.

The offer of help came from a French soldier by the name of Pierre d’Harcourt, a medical orderly who Neave discovered later was a member of a tank regiment that had been decimated by the German Panzers. He had taken on the role of a medical orderly in order to effect an escape when he could. His idea was to substitute Airey Neave with a dead soldier who had died in the hospital. The driver of the ambulance that took the bodies away for burial was a loyal Frenchman and was more than willing to help.

Unfortunately, they discovered that the Germans examined very carefully every body that was being removed. Before any of Pierre d’Harcourt’s ideas could be put into action, word came through that all wounded prisoners were to be transferred to another hospital at Lille. Pierre d’Harcourt decided it was time he left and headed for Paris. Some time later, when Airey Neave returned to England and worked for MI9, he heard that Pierre d’Harcourt was helping run an escape line through France and had aided a number of allied airmen and soldiers to escape.

The wounded from the hospital were placed in German trucks and the convoy headed for Lille. On reaching Baillieul, the truck carrying Airey Neave broke down. The walking wounded were allowed to walk around the small town unaccompanied and at almost every house the door opened and the men were invited in and offered food and wine. Their generosity was overwhelming and, despite the risks, some even offered to hide them and then help them escape.

Airey Neave accepted all the townspeople had to offer regarding the food and wine, but not their offer to help him escape. He knew that his physical condition at the time would be a serious stumbling block in any attempt to escape and it would probably cost those who helped him their lives if he were to be caught.

With the truck repaired, the journey continued on to the hospital at Lille. Within days of being there a young French nurse offered to help Airey Neave and Corporal Dowling of the Durham Light Infantry, to escape. Plans were made to obtain civilian clothes and some French money, but with no travel documents or identity papers it was going to be difficult. Somehow the Germans seemed to get wind of an escape attempt and told all the wounded prisoners, in no uncertain manner, that anyone escaping would cause severe reprisals to be carried out on those left behind. It was the threat of the latter that caused Neave and Dowling to shelve their plans for the time being.

The following week all the walking wounded were collected and the long trek to Germany started. After travelling through Belgium the prisoners were placed on a coal barge and taken up the Schelde and then into the river Waal. They passed under the bridge at Nijmegen in Holland, a bridge that was to pass into history some four years later when the 1st Airborne Division were involved in the Battle of Arnhem.

As the barge entered Germany, Airey Neave felt the first pangs of despair, realising that any chance of escape was slowly disappearing with every mile covered by the barge. Two days later they reached the prisoner of war camp at Spangenburg near Kassel – Oflag IXa. Settling down to recover from his wounds, Airey Neave started to look around at his surroundings with the intention of leaving at the first opportunity. A number of escapes had already been attempted, but none had been successful. In fact some of the escapees had been captured and severely beaten by local civilians.

The morale among the junior officers was extremely low, mainly because of the negative attitude of some of the senior British officers. They considered that escape attempts were hopeless, disrupted the smooth running of the camp and upset the Germans, who retaliated by issuing meagre rations. However the noncommissioned ranks in the Stalags, who went on working parties outside the camp, were given additional rations because of their work environment. These men also had access to the outside world and were able to assess the terrain, the roads, railway stations, in short anything that would aid an escape attempt.

Red Cross parcels started to filter through the system, which made life in the camps more bearable and raised morale considerably. Then in February 1941, the prisoners at Spangenburg were moved to an old fortress on the banks of the river Vistula, just outside Thorn, Poland. The fortress was damp and cold and the rations barely enough to sustain them. The reason for the transfer was given as retaliation for the alleged ill treatment of German prisoners of war in Canada. This was of course total nonsense and was just an excuse to undermine the morale and well-being of the prisoners.

As the train pulled into the station at night at Thorn, German Field Police met the prisoners with snarling Alsatian dogs, whilst searchlights lit up the area brighter than day. Surrounded by tanks, the men were marched to the fortress and deposited in the dark, damp cellars. The conditions were harsh to say the least and the chance for exercise and fresh air extremely limited. From a possible escape perspective, the fact that they were now in Poland lessened the chance of escape, because it was one of those countries of which very little was known at the time.

Airey Neave then discovered that just 3 miles from the fortress was another prisoner of war camp, Stalag XX-A, a camp for NCOs and other ranks. Among the inmates were a number of men from his own company who had survived Calais. Working parties from the Stalag came to the fortress every day and it was through them that Airey Neave gradually discovered that there was an escape committee in existence.

The fact that he knew a number of the men personally helped him to devise an escape plan. Together with Flying Officer Norman Forbes, it was intended that the two of them visited the camp dentist, a British Army officer, whose surgery adjoined the Stalag. They would escape from the surgery and hide in the hut occupied by warrant officers. They had already been approached with the idea and had agreed to help. The two men had obtained civilian clothes from Poles working with the work parties and the intention was that they would slip out with one of the working parties.

With the planning in place, the two men, with a number of others, were marched the 3 miles to the dentist’s surgery, which adjoined the Kommandant’s office and was opposite the main gate into the compound. The two men went into the surgery, removed their uniforms and slipped into the civilian clothes. They then picked up some bundles of wood and at a given signal walked into the Stalag compound whilst other prisoners engaged the guards in conversation. Once inside the compound they were taken to the warrant officers’ hut where they stayed.

The Germans soon realised that two of the inmates from the fortress were missing and immediately started searching for them outside, not realising that the two men were hiding inside the Stalag. For the next five days the NCOs hid the two men. The two men watched with amusement as they stood just inside the wire, watching and listening to SS men being given orders on where to search for the two escapees, not knowing that the two men were standing just literally feet away. During roll call they stayed under the beds of the warrant officers.

When it became obvious that the Germans had scaled down the search, believing the men had escaped, the two men left the compound in a work party to fill pallisasses with straw from a local farmer’s barn. As the work party filled them, the two men slipped away and hid under the straw. Two others who had been hidden in a ration truck took their places. When the work was finished the work party returned to the Stalag with the same number of men as went out.

The two men slipped out of the barn under cover of darkness with the intention of heading for Warsaw. There was an airfield nearby and as Forbes was a pilot, they had considered sneaking in and stealing an aircraft, but as neither of them were navigators they decided to head for Warsaw instead. The terrain consisted of thick, dark forests and rocky, rough tracks. After four days of struggling through this terrain, exhausted and hungry, the pair suddenly found themselves at a control point and were promptly arrested.

Handed over to the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo) they were taken to their headquarters in the town of Plock. Airey Neave realised that he had a drawing of the airfield at Graudenz in his pocket, but managed to tear it up before it was found. Unfortunately he forgot about another one that he had in a matchbox, and that one they found. Airey Neave was justifiably worried as the possession of this map made him look like a spy. The interrogators immediately started to ask questions and accused him of spying for the Russians. What Neave did not know, was that the airfield at Graudenz was a bomber station and that preparations were under way for a massive bombing campaign against Russia, which was to take place two weeks later.

The two men were then taken in front of a civilian member of the Gestapo interrogation team. Dressed in a dark suit, the man had blond hair and cold, blue eyes, and spoke excellent English. He started by accusing them of working for the British Secret Service and when told that the map they had was to aid them to escape to Sweden, he screamed that they were lying. They then told him that they had received the information from three Canadian pilots who, in home-made German Luftwaffe uniforms, had been captured trying to steal an aircraft from the base at Graudenz.

Only the Germans and fellow prisoners at the camp could have known the detailed information regarding the attempted escape by the Canadians. The Gestapo decided to check the story and Neave and Forbes were thrown into a cold damp cell. They pondered their fate throughout the night, drifting in and out of sleep.

The following morning they were dragged from their cell and taken separately into interrogation rooms. Fearing the worst, Airey Neave steeled himself, but was surprised when his civilian interrogator offered him a cigarette and addressed him as ‘Herr Leutnant’. Immediately suspicious, he listened as his interrogator told him that he too had been in the army and had been in the forefront of the attack on Poland. He had later been transferred to the Gestapo because of his ability to speak English. His attitude was almost pleasant, but then he started to press Neave for information regarding the map of the airfield and how he had managed to escape from the prison camp.

Determined not to give any information about the Polish farmer who had helped them, Neave repeated his story regarding the map and said that they had escaped from the dentist’s surgery at the camp and lived off food from the Red Cross parcels. For the time being Neave felt that he was being believed and he was returned to his cell after another two hours of questioning. Up to this point neither man had been mistreated, but the interrogators had created a sinister and threatening atmosphere throughout their questioning, leaving Neave and Forbes wondering when the interrogation would become physical.

Up until this point, there had been no training given to British soldiers on what to expect when being questioned, so this was new territory. When Neave finally escaped and joined MI9, he made certain that troops were given information regarding the interrogation techniques used by the Germans.

The interrogation continued for the next ten days and all the time the threat of violence continued to build. At night both men, now in separate cells, wondered whether or not they would be shot as spies, as this appeared to be the underlying implication of the questioning. Then after the tenth day they were told that they were being returned to the prison camp and that guards from the camp were coming to collect them.

On their return the Kommandant placed both men in cells deep inside the fortress and in solitary confinement. The cells had no ventilation or windows and were lit by a solitary dim electric light bulb. After spending one month in these conditions, the men were returned to the main body of the camp, but within weeks Airey Neave had been transferred to another camp Oflag Ivc – Colditz.

At the beginning of May 1941, Airey Neave and Norman Forbes arrived at Colditz, also known as a Sonderlager (Special Camp). The inmates of this infamous prison camp were deemed to be persistent escapees or enemies of the Reich. The huge castle near Leipzig, once the palace of Augustus the Strong, was an intimidating sight as it dominated the skyline of the Saxon countryside. The security in and around the castle was said by the Germans to make it impregnable, which immediately made the inmates all the more determined to prove them wrong and achieve freedom.

The only thing on the minds of most allied prisoners of war was escape. Within days of the first inmates being incarcerated each nationality had formed their own escape committees. This was not because they planned all their escapes according to their nationality, but because they were separated and imprisoned in different parts of the castle. They all co-operated with each other and helped each other in any way they could. For example Captain Van Doorninck, a Dutch officer, had once been a locksmith and was an expert in repairing instruments and watches and often did work for the German guards. Consequently they allowed him to collect a large range of tools necessary for the work, the same tools he used to fashion keys for the cell block locks and other doors.

For weeks Airey Neave observed the movements and mannerisms of the German guards. It was during one of these observations that he became aware that anyone entering the inner courtyard, where the prisoners were kept, was required to collect a numbered brass disc from the guardhouse and return it when they left. Then a visiting workman was bribed to part with his disc, however on leaving he reported to the guardhouse that he had lost it. All guards were then warned to be on the lookout for the disc or anyone presenting it.

With the obstacle of the disc overcome, the escape committee arranged for duplicates to be made in preparation for future escape attempts. One other problem arose, and that was that all the German guards carried a rifle with a fixed bayonet, and making a fake weapon would be extremely difficult. The answer, as far as he was concerned, was to try and pass himself off as a soldier on special duty. This however required him to carry a bayonet in a scabbard. Fortunately one of the other prisoners was a skilled woodcarver and fashioned him one from a bed board. He then created a buckle out of tin foil and placed it all on a cardboard belt.

Airey Neave had one advantage over most of the inmates in that he spoke German very well. The camp had a theatre in which inmates put on shows but which also gave them access to costumes, paints, dyes and props. Neave put forward a proposal that he would dress as a German corporal, using a converted Polish officer’s uniform painted with some scenery paint. The insignias were made out of cardboard and although very realistic at some distance, would not pass close scrutiny. He would take advantage of a theatrical performance, which large numbers of inmates and guards attended, and then just walk casually out of the main gate.

Everything was set and the evening performance started. Neave, dressed as a German corporal, mingled with the other guards and slipped out of a side door. Walking past the first sentry on the inner perimeter, he approached the second sentry and into the arc lights that illuminated the area. Speaking in fluent German he handed over the brass disc and told the guard that he had a message for the Kommandant from the duty officer. The guard watched Airey Neave march away then looked again at the number of the disc, then realised that the number ‘26’ was the one that had gone missing. The guard then raised his rifle and shouted ‘Halt’. The guardroom personnel were quickly called out and it was then that Airey Neave saw to his dismay that the paint on his uniform had turned bright green under the arc lights, not the field grey that it looked under normal lighting.

Bundled inside the guardroom, Airey Neave was threatened with a firing squad for insulting the German army. He was then taken to solitary confinement. The next morning he appeared in front of the Kommandant who sentenced him to one month’s solitary confinement in the town jail. He was also photographed for German Police records as a criminal. He was then taken from the castle, over a drawbridge across a dry moat and into the town jail. All the time he was being marched there, Neave was taking in the surrounding area and making a mental note of a possible escape route for future use.

That moment came on 5 January 1942 when, together with a Dutch officer by the name of Anthony Lutyen, he effected an escape. The two men, dressed in painted German officer’s uniforms with cardboard insignias attached, clambered down through a trapdoor beneath a stage, made a hole in the ceiling into a storeroom and then went down the stairs and through the guardroom. Anthony Lutyen, who spoke fluent German, chatted nonstop as the pair sauntered out of the guardroom, past the sentries and across the drawbridge. What Airey Neave did not know until after the war was that there was a police photograph of him pinned to the wall of the guardroom.

As the pair stepped out of the guardroom they were met with freezing temperatures and driving snows which, although it aided them considerably as they walked past the guards, also numbed them with cold. After walking over the drawbridge, they clambered down into the dry moat and struggled up the other side, slipping and sliding in the frozen snow. On reaching the top of the moat, they then had to clamber over a 12ft-high outer perimeter wall. Airey Neave stood on Anthony Lutyen’s shoulders and grasped the ice-covered top. With great difficulty, but aided by the urgent desire to escape, he managed to pull himself onto the top of the wall, then reaching down he grasped the hand of Lutyen and pulled him up. The pair dropped heavily onto the ground on the other side, their fall cushioned slightly by the deep snow.

Taking off the German greatcoats, they buried them as deep as they could in the snow, pulled their converted uniforms and ski caps made from blankets on, and set off through the driving snow. Their forged papers identified them as Fremdarbeiters (foreign workers) with permission to travel from Leipzig to Ulm.

After two days of travelling through the snow they arrived at Leipzig and bought two railway tickets to Ulm. They had acquired the money by selling Red Cross chocolates and cigarettes to the German guards back at Colditz. Cash from the escape fund of the escape committee had also supplemented them. Safely aboard the train the two men settled down for the 100-mile journey and a chance to get warm. Once at Ulm, they went to purchase tickets to the small town of Singen, which was close to the frontier, but after showing their travel documents they were arrested by the railway police. Despite this setback, the two men managed to convince the police that they were genuine Dutch foreign workers and they were taken to the office that dealt with foreign workers.

Placed in a room whilst further checks were made, the two men quickly made their escape through a window. They hid in a forest nearby until the following day when they jumped aboard a train going to the small town of Stockach near Ludwig. They then headed across country and through forests towards Singen. The snow had ceased, but the temperature continued to drop. Hungry, frozen and on the point of exhaustion, they were stopped by some elderly woodcutters who were on their way to work. Neave and Lutyen identified themselves as ‘Polish’ labourers from a nearby labour camp, but this was met with disbelief because none of the woodcutters knew of any labour camp in the area. Realising they had been rumbled the two men headed off into the forest, whilst the woodcutters went for the police. For the rest of that day and through the night, the pair struggled through the deep snow.

As dawn broke, they stumbled upon a small hut deep in the forest and after smashing a window to get in, collapsed into a deep sleep. Waking at dusk, somewhat refreshed, they ate what was left of their meagre chocolate ration and planned their last leg of their journey to freedom. They had been given a rough map of the area by one of the inmates of Colditz just before they left. Looking around the hut, they discovered a couple of white coats and some shovels. Putting the coats under their clothes and carrying the shovels, the two men set off for the frontier trying to give the impression that they were returning from the forest after work.

As they approached the lights of Singen, they were stopped by two young boys in Hitler Jugend uniforms, who demanded to know who they were. Anthony Lutyen explained that they were workers from Westphalia who were staying in Singen. All the time Airey Neave gripped the handle of his shovel tightly and admitted later that he would have had no compunction in killing the two boys had there been no option. Satisfied with their explanation, the two boys admitted that they were on the lookout for two British prisoners of war who were on the run and trying to cross the frontier that night.

Watching the two boys cycle off through the snow, the men heaved a sigh of relief, and glancing down at their compasses, headed to the north of Singen. They tramped through more forests, then swung south until they crossed the railway and then on to the road to Schaffhausen. Then in the light of the moon they could see the German frontier post just 100yds away. Putting their shovels down and donning the white coats, the two men edged their way closer. The temperature was falling rapidly and both men were beginning to suffer from exposure and frostbite.

Airey Neave and Anthony Lutyen could hear the voices of the frontier guards clearly. To get to the frontier they would have to cross the road and then get across an area of no-man’s land before reaching the Swiss border. Suddenly clouds obscured the moon and the wind got up, blowing snow into drifts. Taking advantage of this the two men crawled across the road slowly, under the fence and through the deep snow covering no-man’s land. The white coats and the driving snow prevented the guards from spotting them.

After struggling for over an hour, they suddenly reached the Swiss border fence and clambered over. A few yards further on was a road, which they knew led to the small town of Ramsen, Switzerland. With renewed effort, bolstered by the realisation that they had made it, they walked into the town and handed themselves in, with great relief, to a Swiss frontier guard. They were taken into a guardhouse and given hot drinks before the Swiss police arrived to take them away and place them under ‘hotel arrest’. The following morning they were taken to Berne where, eighty-four hours after escaping from Colditz, Airey Neave was drinking tea with the British Military Attaché.


When the Soviets advanced into eastern Germany, the Nazis tried to quickly evacuate the jet factory. But by then, it was too late for the jet to have much effect on the outcome of the war.

By Uli Suckert

At the very end of World War II, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler still hoped that state-of-the-art technology could turn the tide in his favor. One of those projects, the Messerschmitt jet fighter, found a home in a remote corner of eastern Germany. But it was too late.

It took four and a half years, but finally, on March 20, 1944, World War II — and more specifically, the armaments industry — came to a remote corner of eastern Germany called the Lausitz. As the Allies flew an ever-increasing number of air raids over Germany’s industrial and urban centers, large weapons factories in Nazi Germany began an exhaustive search for suitable places to relocate — sites as inconspicuous and isolated as possible. Indeed, by 1943, Hermann Göring, commander of the Luftwaffe, had already forged plans to relocate the aviation industry to areas the Allies were unlikely to bomb.

It took a year, but then Junkers, an airplane and engine manufacturer from Dessau, moved into a factory belonging to the Moras Brothers textile company in Zittau, which today is located near Germany’s border with Poland and the Czech Republic.

Disguised as a company called Zittwerke AG, it was far from run-of-the-mill as far as armaments factories go. Zittau was to be where the world’s first production-ready jet engine would be completed, the same engine that was to power Hitler’s secret weapon, the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter.

Jürgen Ulderup from Junkers’ Dessau production site was tasked with taking over as plant manager in Zittau. He immediately set up a network of manufacturing plants throughout the region, all top secret. Key to getting the project off the ground was his demand that 18 long-established textile producers make space in their factories for armaments production. Some companies had to turn over their factories in their entirety. It proved a further blow for the region’s textile industry, already largely crippled and converted to the war economy.

Core of the Enterprise

But winning the war took priority, and the remote corner of Nazi Germany now began producing components for the clandestine jet engine. Ulderup hired over 2,500 employees and put them to work in the Zittwerke plants, under the direction of aviation industry experts. They worked in the Moras factory, the Haebler Brothers textile company in Zittau, the Rudolf Breuer mechanical weaving mill in Reichenau, the Kreutziger & Henke company in Leutersdorf, the Ebersbach spinning and weaving mill, and at 13 other factories located in regional towns and villages.

But the core of the enterprise was to be found on the grounds of a former World War I prisoner of war camp in the present-day Polish town of Porajów — a camp which had been converted for use by the German armed forces. The factory, guarded by the 17th SS “Totenkopf” battalion, simply moved into several half-finished barracks.

Deep in the heart of the compound, behind several rows of barbed wire, was the administration building where a detachment from the Gross-Rosen concentration camp was housed. Along with prisoners of war and the so-called “Eastern workers” — forced labor from countries such as the Ukraine — over 850 concentration camp prisoners did most of the work in the Zittwerke factories.

Not long after Junkers had settled in, the sound of industry filled the Neisse River Valley day and night. Rumors of a “miracle weapon” circulated among the local population, but no one knew exactly what the factory produced. It wasn’t until final assembly that the object in question could be recognized for what it was: a special turbojet engine for a new type of jet fighter.

Shiny New Me 262s

Technicians had already tested the engines. A Messerschmitt plane, the Me 262-V 1, powered with a Junkers Jumo 004A-0 jet engine, took to the air as early as March 2, 1943. The test proved successful. And before long, the Zwittau factories mastered all aspects of the jet engine’s production, from pre-assembly to shipment.

The factories were well connected to the Third Reich’s rail network, with covered freight cars lugging the completed engines — once they had passed inspection — to the south. There, in the forests surrounding the Bavarian towns of Regensburg and Augsburg, workers installed the new engines into the jets. A converted Autobahn nearby served as a runway from which the shiny new Me 262s took off for their test flights. Only then would they be loaded onto freight trains for delivery to the Luftwaffe.

The Nazis had high hopes for the new jets. By the beginning of 1945, with the Russians closing from the east and the US and Britain marching in from the west, it was clear that Germany faced a catastrophic defeat, but the Nazi leadership refused to give up hope. On February 28, 1945, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels announced to the nation that Germany’s “miracle weapon” would soon turn the tide of the war.

For Zittau, however, indications were mounting that it would be too late. The day before the Goebbels speech, the city of Görlitz just north of Zittau had been declared part of the front. Workers in the jet engine factories could already hear the thunder of enemy guns.

Hectic Evacuation

It wasn’t long before the hectic evacuation got underway. A Wehrmacht counterattack near the present-day Polish town of Luba on March 7 and 8, 1945 managed to push back the Red Army. But after heavy losses on both sides, the Soviets halted the German advance, such as it was, and the factories ceased production.

Given the importance of the jet engine project, it didn’t take long for evacuation of both workers and factory machinery to get underway. In early March, two special trains carrying the most vital elements of the production chain made their way from Zittau to the west, one on the 6th and another on the 10th. They ultimately ended up in the town of Nordhausen, located in the state of Thuringia, some 100 kilometers west of Leipzig.

Luftwaffe soldiers, who had guarded the Zittwerke’s various factory locations producing jet engines for the Me 262, also boarded the train in Zittau. Two trains with over 500 people left directly from the factory premises for Halberstadt in Saxony-Anhalt. A final train, belonging to the Wehrmacht, left on April 30, just days before the end of the war, presumably carrying the last of the military units.

Mass Grave

But the Nazis didn’t evacuate everything. Inside the remaining restricted military area, the forced laborers and concentration camp prisoners remained. Many of them died. A factory doctor issued 70 handwritten death certificates in April and the beginning of May. The causes of death listed were primarily “acute heart failure with asthenia,” “pulmonary tuberculosis,” “pneumonia,” or “scurvy.”

The role Zittwerke plant manager Jürgen Ulderup played in the deaths remains something of a mystery. According to his own reports, Ulderup fled by bicycle from Zittau to Osnabrück in western Germany in the last days of the war, with a backpack crammed full of copper bars. His driver, along with his company car, had long since disappeared, according to the former Nazi plant manager.

Today only a mass grave in Zittau’s women’s cemetery provides a reminder that the so-called “miracle weapon” was produced locally. A well-kept lawn covers the area behind the cemetery wall, where civilian victims of World War II are buried. They include the prisoners and forced laborers who sweated away in Nazi Germany’s final attempt to turn the tide of onrushing World War II destruction.

Soviet Prisoners of War

Heinrich Himmler Visiting Russian POW Camp.

Even prior to the invasion of the Soviet Union, the German civilian and military leadership made provisions to separate and kill selected categories of Soviet POWs and to provide the remainder with grossly insufficient provisions and supplies. While this policy would undergo a number of modifications over time, it was never completely revised. In the end, of the 3.3 million Red Army soldiers captured before the end of 1941, nearly 2 million died in German custody. Of the 5.7 million Soviet troops captured over the course of the entire war, between 2.5 million and 3.3 million perished. 106 By 1945, mass graves for Soviet POWs littered Europe’s war-ravaged landscape; mass graves were found in Norway and France, in Germany and Poland – although most Soviet POW victims died while still on Soviet soil. 
Plans to undersupply Soviet POWs systematically initially arose in the framework of a general policy of starvation directed at those populations living in Soviet territories occupied by the German army, designed in early 1941. These plans, intended both to ameliorate the critical supply situation on the Eastern Front and to buttress Germany’s own limited food supplies, primarily targeted populations living in northern and central Russia, Byelorussia, and urban environments. It was, of course, tremendously naive to imagine that these populations would peacefully starve to death. With only skeletal occupation forces policing these areas, it was virtually impossible to prevent Soviet citizens from “illegally” procuring food (with the notable exception of besieged Leningrad, where approximately 600,000 civilians died). In the end, it was pressure from regional occupation authorities – who required a pliable urban workforce and a functioning infrastructure and who wished to avoid epidemics and public unrest – that led to the abandonment of the original starvation scheme. Given the enormous and growing supply needs of the German military on the Eastern Front, however, policy was not fully reversed in practice. Supplies allocated to the civilian populations remained grossly insufficient. It was in this context that from September 1941 on, a policy of selective extermination emerged. The largest group affected were prisoners of war. Soviet POWs viewed as “unfit for work” were, quite simply, left to die of starvation: they were physically separated from other POWs and placed on greatly reduced diets. Largely unable to attain food outside their rations, they had little chance of survival. The death rate among prisoners quickly skyrocketed; and, from October 1941 on, larger POW camps witnessed up to four hundred prisoners’ deaths per day – a rate nearly as high as those achieved by the individual Einsatzgruppen during this same period. Between September and December 1941, an average of 15,000 Soviet POWs lost their lives each and every day – according to numerous reports, malnutrition was the leading culprit; disease was a distant second. 
Only in the spring of 1942, which brought an increased urgency to the utilization of forced labor, did the situation ease somewhat. Yet, even then, Soviet POWs did not receive adequate nutrition. Only a minor portion of all Soviet POWs killed died in large-scale executions. According to the secret “Commissar Order” of June 6, 1941, political officers among Red Army POWs were to be murdered. Practically, such special treatment meant that political officers either were shot by the troops who captured them, were killed by POW camp guards, or were handed over to police authorities, who either shot them themselves or sent them to concentration camps. The concentration camp, itself, was virtually equivalent to a death sentence: most perished within a few months under particularly harsh conditions reserved for political POWs or were outright murdered in gas chambers or gas vans or through other methods. It is estimated that 120,000 Soviet POWs were handed over to the SS and police during the course of the Second World War. Because the data are highly fragmentary, however, no reliable estimates exist for the total number of political officers murdered. In addition to political officers, there were also attempts to single out and murder Jewish and, until September 1941, “Asian” Soviet POWs. At varying times and in varying regions, other select POW groups also became the target of exterminatory policies: most notably, Red Army officers and female Red Army soldiers. 
Whereas the “Commissar Order” was largely abandoned by May 1942, as it inadvertently strengthened military resistance whenever Red Army soldiers were aware of such policies, other killings of Soviet POWs continued unabated: up to several hundred thousand Soviet POWs were shot by German guards during exhausting forced marches, while filing through the streets of occupied Soviet cities, or while being loaded and unloaded at railway stations. In these cases, the perpetrators were regular German soldiers, often on orders from low- or mid-ranking officers. On a typical forced march, for which insufficient provisions of food, beverage, and carts were provided, only a handful of officers and rank-and-file guards were allocated to accompany the prisoners. As senior officers usually planned these marches, the relatively junior officers and rank-and-file guards assigned to them were placed in a rather unenviable position. With a demanding schedule and vastly inadequate supplies, it was inevitable that many POWs would be unable to finish the journey, and, with so few guards, some would try to flee. In any event, a situation developed in which guards often chose to execute POWs unable to continue along the route – a strategy perhaps designed both to motivate the marchers onward and to forestall possible resistance. In occupied Ukraine, there were even army-level orders to shoot POWs who could not continue. Taking this practice into consideration, we must conclude that the German military was responsible for the direct murder of most Soviet POWs, not the SS or the police.
While it is broadly accepted that there existed a high-level extermination policy against certain groups of Soviet POWs in German captivity, it is important to remember that those who died were not the victims of some anonymous force or faceless system. High-level political orders coincided with the ground-level actions of German army officers and soldiers. Especially during the early days of the conflict, German troops regularly exhibited a tendency toward excessive violence by adhering to “no prisoner” policies, on orders originating everywhere from army corps to platoon level. On occasion, officers’ orders not to shoot weak and injured Soviet prisoners during forced marches to the rear were willfully ignored by the troops assigned to them – usually Sicherungsdivisionen or Landesschu” tzenbataillone, units that primarily comprised older reservists. Once in camp, from October 1941, Soviet prisoners were separated into two groups: a group categorized as “fit for labor” – and, thus, selected for survival – and a group categorized as “unfit for work” – and, thus, slated for death. While those deemed “fit for labor” were spatially separated from their less fortunate comrades, they nonetheless remained subject to overly heavy labor demands and indiscriminately cruel treatment – in the camps as well as at the workplace – suggesting that different German troops were involved in the violence. As a result, the death rate among those “fit for work” remained extraordinarily high. Even after senior civilian and military authorities introduced a policy in the spring of 1942 that sought to keep workers alive, Soviet POWs continued to be overworked, underfed, and brutally treated, resulting in continued elevated mortality rates. It seems that the mentalities of many guards and lower-level commanders proved too inflexible for such rapid policy shifts. From a source perspective, it has been the personal statements and testaments of surviving Soviet POWs – a source base until recently neglected by Western researchers as “biased,” despite their simultaneous reliance upon oral testimony in researching the fate of German POWs – that most fully demonstrate the intensity and unpredictability of the violence inflicted by German troops upon Soviet prisoners. At the same time, it should be remembered that many guards did not participate in beatings, torture, or killings. 
A number of factors influenced the violence inflicted upon Soviet POWs. In part, it was the product of a racist ideology deeply entrenched within the German military, an ideology that produced a sense of absolute superiority. Interestingly, with the exception of ethnic Germans and Jews, relatively little distinction was made between different ethnic groups among POWs. Anti-Communism represented another factor in the maltreatment of Soviet prisoners. Given the flight and evacuation of Soviet officials from territories conquered by the Germans, Soviet POWs were, by and large, the only representatives of the Soviet state ever to fall into German hands. Accordingly, the German military tended to treat them as if they were responsible for all Soviet “crimes.” This mentality may have contributed to the fact that the death rate among Soviet POWs remained significantly higher than that of the 2 million Soviet civilians deported to Germany as forced labor from 1942. The combination of racist and anti-Bolshevik sentiments resulted in the assignment of particularly exhausting and dangerous work to Soviet POWs, such as quarry mining. Finally, local emergencies, whether concerning German troop supplies and transportation or the fear of civil revolt and resistance, often led regional occupation authorities to undernourish and undersupply Soviet POWs further, a policy that only elevated their already high death rates. The death rate in the General Government of Poland and in areas under the control of Army Group Center in late 1941, for example, exceeded 30 percent per month. The recurrence of such local emergencies helps to account for the substantial discrepancies in mortality rates in different regions at any given time. 
While economic, military, and political considerations were not fully independent of ideological motives, they played critical roles in the ongoing crescendo of violence against Soviet POWs. Indeed, it was precisely the combination of virulent racism, anti-Communism, and key moments in a deadly military conflict that produced conditions under which extreme political and military measures appeared justified and mass death seemed inevitable.

Posted in PoW

Hilfswillige – Hiwi

290. Infanterie-Division–Hilfswillige being awarded. September 1943

The Germans would allow no `Russian’ political administration, but there was a considerable effort to recruit the local inhabitants at the grass-roots to aid the Axis cause. Millions of people were conscripted as forced labourers. The Germans were also able to secure the services of a very large number of Soviet citizens in their armed forces, as German Army auxiliaries (the Hilfswillige – Hiwi), but also even as military units, some directly involved in counter-insurgency duties. This recruitment to serve the Reich in fields, mines, factories and even in military uniform was most successful among the non-Russian nationalities. There were several distinct reasons for this, including the fact that most of the German-occupied territory was inhabited by minorities.  In European terms this contribution was large, partly due to the huge pool of potential personnel.
Operation “Blau” was launched on 28 June 1942, and by mid- September-that is, even before the battle of Stalingrad began taking its toll–over a third of a million men were lost. 45 Following the destruction of Paulus’ 6 Army in the cauldron of Stalingrad, the Soviet counter-offensive of winter and autumn 1943, and the abortive German “Zitadelle” offensive, losses rocketed to unprecedented levels. Between November 1942 and October 1943 the Ostheer sustained well over a million and a half casualties (including the sick), of whom close to 700,000 were permanently lost. As replacements could not keep up with this rate of casualties, no less than 40 divisions were either disbanded or re-grouped into so-called “small divisions,” and the establishment figures of the remaining formations were cut almost by half to 10,700 soldiers. Indeed, by December 1943 the Ostheer’s overall strength was down by more than a million men to just over 2,000,000 soldiers. In an attempt to make up for this mammoth shortage, the army now greatly intensified the conscription of Soviet POWs and civilians, euphemistically called volunteers, or Hiwis, whose number ultimately reached some 320,000 men. While the Hiwis were distributed among German formations mainly as replacements for service troops ordered to combat duty, another 150,000 men belonging to Soviet national minorities were organized into semi-independent Ostlegionen, though even in this case most command positions were held by Germans. 46 Yet none of these measures, including the transfer to the front in the second half of 1943 of another half a million noncombat troops from the rear, young recruits, women, foreigners, and ethnic Germans, could make up for the increasing losses. 47 In summer 1944 the great Soviet offensive against Army Group Center claimed a monthly average of over 200,000 soldiers and almost 4000 Hiwis during the five months between 1 July and 31 December. Indicative of the much greater weight of the Eastern Front even following the Allies’ landing in Europe is that in the West the monthly average of German casualties during the same period was just over 8000 men. 48 By November 1944 the Ostheer’s total manpower had further declined to 1,840,000 men, and that in spite of the recruitment of yet more UK-Stellen personnel and the conscription of 16-year-old lads. 49 By the end of March 1945 the Ostheer’s overall casualties mounted to 6,172,373 men, or double its original manpower on 22 June 1941, a figure which constituted fully four-fifths of the total losses sustained by the Feldheer on all fronts since the invasion of the Soviet Union. 50 And yet, among combat units at the front casualties were proportionately much higher still, with a corresponding impact on the formation and life-expectancy of “primary groups.”
Posted in PoW


Inspection of Trawnikimänner by Karl Streibel at Trawniki. They were tasked with the liquidation of Jewish ghettos in occupied Poland.

Trawniki was a unique dual-purpose camp whose role in the Holocaust was of great significance yet its name is little known beyond academic specialists and war crimes lawyers. It was originally established in July 1941 in the grounds of an abandoned sugar factory as a detention facility for special categories of Soviet POW: those considered either especially dangerous or potential collaborators. It then became a training facility for SS auxiliaries from the territories of the USSR (primarily Ukrainians) in September. They were initially drawn from the captured Soviet conscripts but later included a substantial number of volunteers. The `Trawnikis’, known to the Germans as Hiwis (from Hilfswillige, volunteers), became notorious for their role as guards in the Aktion Reinhard camps. They were also deployed in camps such as Poniatowa and Janowska and used in ghetto clearance operations in major cities. Trawniki was thus crucial in supplying the SS with the manpower it required to implement the Holocaust.
Odilo Globocnik, SS and Police Leader in Lublin, Poland. Unable to satisfy his manpower needs out of local resources, Globocnik prevailed upon Himmler to recruit non-Polish auxiliaries from the Soviet border regions. The key person on Globocnik’s Operation Reinhard staff for this task was Karl Streibel. He and his men visited the POW camps and recruited Ukrainian, Latvian, and Lithuanian “volunteers” (Hilfswillige, or Hiwis) who were screened on the basis of their anti-Communist (and hence almost invariably anti-Semitic) sentiments, offered an escape from probable starvation, and promised that they would not be used in combat against the Soviet army. These “volunteers” were taken to the SS camp at Trawniki for training. Under German SS officers and ethnic German noncommissioned officers, they were formed into units on the basis of nationality.
Over the next two and a half years, 2,000 to 3,000 easterners (mainly Ukrainians) were trained at Trawniki. They formed the bulk of the men running the death camps. On average, only 20 to 35 German SS men were stationed at each camp. Each camp was normally commanded by an SS captain, with perhaps one lieutenant present as a deputy commandant. All of the other SS men were sergeants; there were no SS privates in the camps.
During the Holocaust the Germans were also fighting major military campaigns on which their survival depended. Their manpower was stretched very thin, but they were at first reluctant to recruit large numbers of fighting forces among the “inferior races” of Eastern Europe. They were, however, entirely prepared to make use of volunteers to assist in genocide. In the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) and the Ukraine, right-wing nationalist groups welcomed the Germans as liberators from “Jewish Bolshevism” and launched pogroms against the Jews either independently or under the benevolent gaze of the Wehrmacht. Organized variously as patriotic militias or “self-protection” units, they killed thousands of Jews and so impressed the Germans that the latter formed them into Schutzmannschaften (police) battalions under the command of German officers. These collaborators were encouraged to recruit volunteers from among their countrymen in German prisoner of war camps. The Germans called those who stepped forward Hilfswillige (volunteer helpers), Hiwis for short; eventually they came to number in the hundreds of thousands. After receiving training at SS camps such as Trawniki in eastern Poland, most of them assisted German order police in various actions against Jews, Gypsies, and partisans. The Germans found that they could usually rely on the Hiwis to perform the least pleasant tasks, such as flushing Jews out of ghetto hiding places and shooting on the spot those too frail to walk to deportation vehicles. Other volunteers became guards at camps and ghettos all over Eastern Europe. More than three quarters of the guards at Treblinka, Bekzec, and Sobibor were Hiwis. Eventually, in 1943 and 1944, Hitler authorized combat units made up of Eastern European volunteers, including two Waffen SS divisions made up of Latvians and one each of Ukrainians and Estonians.



…whether sharing a joke with his comrade or just happy to have survived…so far…


The war between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia (1941–1945) was arguably the largest and most brutal theater of land warfare in the twentieth century. Fueled by bitter ideological antagonism, the enormous cruelty at the front extended directly into the treatment of prisoners of war on both sides. Of 5.7 million captured Red Army soldiers, about 3.3 million died in German captivity—a staggering mortality rate of 57 percent. By comparison, the mortality rate of British and American POWs in German hands lay between 3.5 and 5.1 percent. On the other side, almost one-third of up to 3 million German and Austrian prisoners of war perished in Soviet captivity. And Germany’s allies fared little better: 2 million of their soldiers, mainly Hungarians, Rumanians, Czechs, and Italians, were captured by the Red Army during the war and suffered mortality rates at times comparable to that among the Germans. In Soviet and German POW camps, years of hard labor and almost unbearable living conditions shaped the lives of those who were to survive. Facing this prospect, many soldiers on both sides decided to fight to the bitter end rather than to give up, thus intensifying and prolonging what already was a savage war.
In the early morning hours of 22 June 1941, the German Wehrmacht (armed forces) and its allies invaded the Soviet Union. Taken by surprise, the Red Army initially offered only sporadic resistance. In the first week of July alone, the German army encircled and captured over 320,000 Russian troops at Biasystok and Minsk. Heading further east, it continued to capture huge numbers of Soviet soldiers, most notably at Smolensk, Kiev, and Bryansk. By the time the Wehrmacht’s advance came to its first significant standstill near Moscow in December 1941, over 3.2 million Soviet soldiers had fallen into German captivity. By February 1942, 2 million of them had lost their lives. This mass death had been clearly premeditated. Prior to the German attack, in March 1941, Hitler had relieved his troops from allegiance to the traditional code of military honor: “The Communist is from first to last no comrade. It is a war of extermination.” And despite occasional criticism out of its ranks, the Wehrmacht generally complied with the regime’s genocidal premises.
Thus, for many Soviet soldiers, death came immediately after their capture: according to German orders, political officers (commissars) were to be shot on the spot and others, especially Jewish soldiers, were handed over to SS execution squads. Undernourished and liable to be shot if they were physically unable to carry on, tens of thousand then perished during the seemingly endless marches from the front to camps in Poland and Germany. Prisoners who made it to their permanent camp locations usually found nothing but a barren field surrounded by barbed-wire. For shelter, they were forced to dig holes into the ground. With no sanitary facilities, these “camps” soon became breeding grounds for typhus and dysentery. Then the coming of winter hit the inmates in their makeshift shelters. The most common cause of death among the POWs at that time, however, was starvation. In order to maintain the food supply of their own troops and that of the German civilian population, the leadership of the Third Reich had decided to induce a “natural” decimation of the Russian prisoners, whom they branded “subhumans” and “worthless eaters.” Some Soviet POWs even became the first victims of the gas chambers at a number of concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Clearly, the treatment of the Soviet POWs in 1941–1942 fell into line with Nazi designs of a racist war of conquest and annihilation in which no rules, be they legal or ethical, were recognized.

In early 1942, however, pressure mounted to make use of prisoners of war in industry and agriculture. Following the anticipated victory, the German leadership had initially planned to demobilize large portions of the Wehrmacht in order to create a manpower pool for the defense industry. But with the advance stalled, demobilization became impossible. Instead, a first batch of 400,000 Soviet prisoners in Germany were forced to toil on projects such as highway construction and mining. Requiring a healthy workforce, the labor program led to the gradual betterment of the prisoners’ living conditions. In the spring of 1942, the death rate in the POW camps began to drop, though this was not entirely due to sudden German benevolence: by now, so many prisoners had died that in many cases the meager allotments of food became sufficient for those who remained. Yet, not until July 1944 did the food supply for the working Soviet prisoners reach a level comparable to that of other Allied prisoners in German captivity.
In addition to labor, service in the German army seemed to offer a way of survival for Soviet prisoners. In 1942, the Wehrmacht and the SS began to recruit volunteers among the POWs. Appealing to anticommunist sentiment and the will to survive among the captives, their efforts had some success. Tens of thousands of former Soviet soldiers served in special German-led battalions, in the army of Lieutenant General Andrei Vlasov, a former Red Army commander who had switched sides, and in German work battalions. The total number of former Soviet prisoners in the German armed services is unknown, with estimates ranging from 250,000 to about 1 million. The remaining POWs became part of the gigantic slave labor pool that propped up the Third Reich’s industry in the later years of the war. Their living conditions remained harsh, and another 1.3 million perished in German captivity between 1942 and 1945. Furthermore, in spite of Allied victory, the plight of many Soviet prisoners did not end in 1945. Of approximately 1.8 million prisoners eventually repatriated to the USSR, 150,000 were sentenced to six years forced labor for “aiding the enemy,” and almost all others experienced the hostility engendered by Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s infamous Order 270, which had called all Red Army soldiers who allowed themselves to be captured alive “traitors to the motherland.”
To fall into enemy captivity on the eastern front turned out to be highly perilous for German soldiers as well. Here too, legal considerations made no impact. Even though the USSR had not signed the Geneva Convention, it had indicated that it would observe the Hague Order and the Second Geneva Convention for the protection of the wounded. Nevertheless, retreating Red Army forces more often than not executed their wounded POWs. But during the Wehrmacht’s initial advance in 1941 and 1942, the number of German soldiers in Soviet hands remained relatively low. Until the battle of Stalingrad, which ended in January 1943, the number of German POWs did not exceed 100,000. At Stalingrad, however, another 93,000 fell into Soviet captivity, of whom barely 6,000 were to survive their internment. The mortality rate among German POWs at the time rose to 90 percent, as the majority never made it to permanent prison camps. But unlike their Soviet counterparts in 1941–1942, the German prisoners were not subjected to a policy of systematic mass murder. Instead, they fell victim to the unorganized state of the Soviet POW camp system (GUPVI), to the chaotic conditions of a country ravaged by war, and to individual acts of retaliation. In addition, after months of winter fighting, many German soldiers went into captivity in pitiful physical state, at least one-third of them in need of medical attention, which the Russians generally failed to provide.
Following the defeat at Kursk in the summer of 1943, the German army began its final retreat from Russia. The rising number of POWs now entirely overwhelmed Soviet capacities. The number of base camps in the Soviet Union tripled from 52 to 156 in 1944, yet scarcities remained everywhere, especially in food provision, winter clothing, and medical supplies. At the end of the war in May 1945, another 1.5 million Axis soldiers who had failed to reach American or British front lines flooded into Russian temporary POW camps. Once in camps in the Soviet Union, they were put to work to reconstruct the war-torn country. In fact, the USSR’s first five-year economic plan after the war depended heavily on POW labor. For many years and under often gruesome conditions, German and Austrian prisoners built power plants and railway tracks, the Metro in Moscow, defense industries in the Ural mountains, gold mines in eastern Siberia, and much more. Even the Russian atomic bomb program owed much to the labor and technical expertise of German prisoners of war.
Given their suffering, the German prisoners showed little positive reaction to Soviet propaganda efforts. Attempts to organize them into an opposition to Hitler’s regime largely fell on deaf ears, even though small groups such as the National Committee for a Free Germany served as recruiting grounds for administrative personnel for the Soviet occupied zone of Germany after the war. The majority of the prisoners, however, experienced Soviet political influence as oppressive. Most infamous were the camp hierarchies established by the Antifa, groups of antifascist, mainly communist, German POWs who had been handpicked by Soviet authorities in order to control their fellow inmates. Usually, these selected prisoners occupied privileged positions in the camps and could be easily identified among their undernourished comrades by their healthy, well-fed appearance.
The living conditions in Soviet captivity failed to improve after the war. Constant hunger, slave labor, and a lack of medical care led the prisoners to develop specific strategies of survival. The German prisoners adopted the “plenny-step,” a mode of slow movement designed to conserve the body’s energy that soon turned the camp inhabitants into a mass of bent, crawling figures. The “hunger winter” of 1946–1947, which followed a Russian crop failure, took yet another heavy toll on them. Soviet authorities had to declare a state of emergency for the entire GUPVI camp system in order to battle the dramatically decreasing labor output and the surging mortality rates. And given the importance of prisoner labor, repatriations began only gradually. In mid-1947, when the first mass repatriations of Austrian and Hungarian prisoners commenced, there were still over 1 million German POWs in the Soviet Union whose repatriation did not begin until a year later. By 1950, their number had slowly dropped to 30,000.
The story of those last 30,000 German prisoners constitutes the final chapter of the sad history of POW internment on what had been the eastern front. Stripped of their status as prisoners of war and instead considered as convicted war criminals, these internees became a lever used by the Soviets in the Cold War, particularly with respect to the newly established Federal Republic of Germany. While some of these former German soldiers had undoubtedly committed war crimes, many others had received their original sentences—25 years of hard labor—for petty offenses or simply out of bad luck. For another five years, German prisoners toiled in the Soviet Union until that country finally repatriated them in 1955–1956 in exchange for the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Federal Republic. The last German POW did not return home until 1956, more than 10 years after the end of the war.

BEST BOOKS – The Third Reichs Eastern Legions and POWS

Catherine Andreyev
“Her main aim is to synthesize and comment on the political ideas of the Russians and others associated with what she properly calls not simply the ‘Vlasov movement’ but the Russian Liberation Movement….Her book includes a comprehensive and judicious survey of what others have done, full citations to sources, and an extensive bibliography. The writing is clear, graceful, and precise.” American Historical Review”…an elegant, authoritative but highly readable book.” The Journal of Soviet Military Studies

“Andreyev’s book is likely to become the standard reference work on an important movement whose leading figures were hanged in Moscow in August 1946” Journal of Ukrainian Studies

Every so often a text appears which dispels the conventional wisdom of what we come to accept as history. Catherine Andreyev’s “Vlasov and the Russian Liberation Movement” is such a work. This narrative tells the story of one of the strangest, yet most compelling episodes in the history of the Second World War. In July of 1942, a Soviet Army general, Andrei Vlasov was captured by the invading German Army. He later came to lead a non-existent force known as the ROA, or Russian Liberation Army. Although this force had never existed, he was in fact the ideological leader of an estimated 800 million Russians who were opposed to Stalin and served in various capacities during the war. Throughout the war it was clear that the movement was not, as their opponents had charged, blind collaboration with the Nazi forces but a political movement in its own right. The goal of Vlasov and his group was none other than a free and democratic Russian state. In the course of the movement, it was in fact the Nazis themselves that provided the strongest opposition to the goals of the ROA. They, in fact had desired to use Vlasov only for the purpose of propaganda against the Soviets. Andreyev’s story tells the story of the various individuals in the movement and the tragic outcome of this movement. Particular emphasis is placed on different factions involved. In this story we learn about the soldiers themselves who were mostly Russian prisoners of war, as well as the civilian émigré groups who supported the ROA. We also see the internal struggle between the Vlasov’s group who sincerely wanted to liberate their homeland and the Nazi hierarchy who considered the Russians as being racially inferior and wanted to use them as puppets. In short this is an excellent story of an idealistic, but doomed group of people and their struggle.
Tom Pierce

Product Description
This book deals with the attempt by Soviet citizens to create an anti-Soviet Liberation Movement during the Second World War. The Movement’s ultimate importance lies in its expression of grass-roots opposition to the Soviet regime, the first substantial such efflorescence since 1922. The motivation of its titular leader, Vlasov, is examined in detail, as is its fundamental ideology, analyzed within the context not merely of wartime but of prewar Soviet and Russian emigré society.
Die Geschichte der Wlassow-Armee (Einzelschriften zur militarischen Geschichte des Zweiten Weltkrieges)
Joachim Hoffmann
Publisher: Rombach (1984)
Language: German
ISBN-10: 3793001865
ISBN-13: 978-3793001867
“Die geschichte der Wlassow-Armee” is best on the military history of the ROA.


Against Stalin and Hitler: Memoir of the Russian Liberation Movement, 1941-1945
Author: Wilfried Strik-Strikfeldt
Publisher: Macmillan
Published in: London
Year: 1970
“It can be argued that it was Hitler’s idiotic policy towards Russia and Russians that lost him the war in the East, and, incidentally ensured the survival of the Stalinist regime. By the summer of 1944 when Himmler (of all people) sponsored a change of course it was already too late. In the event the German armies were overwhelmed, and the Russian Liberation Movement under General Vlasov became one of the might-have-beens of history. The Movement, however, has a significance of its own, apart from the moving human story of its leaders and its followers. Here we have an authentic account from the man best qualified to give it…”—–from the Foreword by David Footman.
The author was on the staff of Field Marshall von Bock, commander of the Central Group of Armies in Hitler’s invasion of Russia. He kept a full diary from then till the end of the war, and it is on this that he has based this book. An account of the Russian Liberation Movement under the leadership of General Vlasov. The author was closely associated with Vlasov. Hitler failed to exploit the readiness to co-operate among the populations of Russia which greeted his troops when they first advanced into the Soviet Union. This one is good if you want to know the person Andrej Andrejevich Vlasov and his ideals.


Fischer, George: Soviet opposition to Stalin. 1952.
Dwinger, Edwin Erich: General Wlassow, eine tragödie .. 1951.
Steenberg, Sven: General Wlassow, verräter oder patriot. 1968.
English translation Vlasov, traitor or patriot.
Strik-Strikfeldt, Wilfrid: Gegen Stalin und Hitler. 1970.
English translation Against Stalin and Hitler. The John Day Company. 1973.
Thorwald, Jürgen: Die illusion: Rotarmisten in Hitler´s heere. 1974.
English translation The illusion:..1975.
Hoffmann, Joachim: Die Geschichte der Wlassow-Armee. 1984.
Andreyev, Catherine: Vlasvov and the Russian Liberation Movement. Cambridge University Press. 1987. Contains a list of literature, much in Russian.
Drobjasko, S.: Russkaja osvoboditelnaja armija. 1998. Soldat series no. 5.
Okorokov, A.V.: Materialy Po Istorii Russkogo Osvoboditel Nogo Dvizheniya, three parts 1997-99. Moscow.
To read of the repatriation to the Soviet Union:
Tolstoy, Nicolay: Victims of Yalta. Hodder & Stoughton. 1977.